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William Faulkner: Light in August

Faulkner’s novels are generally racist. Like all white (and many black) Southerners of his era, he freely uses the term nigger and, of course, African-Americans, while they might get some sympathy from him, generally do not fare well. We make allowances for him because that was the custom of his time and because he was generally more sympathetic than many of his compatriots. However, this one seems worse than the others. Part of the problem, of course, is that race is an issue in the book and virtually all the white people are racist. Moreover, the key plot element has the major character as a bad person because he has (or thinks he has – it is not 100 percent certain) black blood in him. If we ignore that – and it is difficult – this is a very fine novel.

It concerns two people with a past, specifically with a legacy from their parents and three others whose life pretty much goes to hell. The framing story – Faulkner loves framing stories – concerns Lena Grove. Both her parents died the same year and she went to live with her brother, whom she barely knew, his wife and their many children. It took her some time to realise that the window of the room where she slept with some of her many nephews and nieces opened. When she found out that it did, she slipped out and met Lucas Burch. By the time she and her brother realised that she was pregnant, Burch had long since disappeared. Lena again uses the window and slips out to find Burch. On her journey, she is led to believe that someone called Burch might be working in a planing factory in Jefferson and that is where she goes. Only when she gets there, does she realize that the man working there is called Byron Bunch and is nothing to do with her Burch. Bunch is a good man (though constantly mocked for being a nonentity) and helps her, inadvertently revealing that a former colleague, Joe Brown, now living nearby and selling illegal whiskey, may well be Lucas Burch.

But the main story concerns Joe Christmas. The day Lena arrives in Jefferson, a key event has occurred. Christmas, who also used to work for the planing factory, has been living in a cabin with Joe Brown/Lucas Burch making and selling whiskey. The cabin is on the land of Joanna Burden. She is a recluse and is considered a Yankee as her grandfather was. A man and his wife travelling into Jefferson note that the house is on fire and find Burden’s body. The head has almost been completely severed from the body. Her nephew quickly offers a $1000 reward and Joe Brown, claiming he knows Joe Christmas did it, quickly claims it. Christmas runs away and Faulkner then tells us of his early story, which takes up much of the book.

Joe was left on the doorstep of an orphanage one Christmas Eve (hence the name) as a baby. As a child he is later adopted by the McEachern family but clashes continually with Mr. McEachern, who is a very strict Calvinist. When McEachern finds him with a woman, Christmas strikes him and flees. His bad behaviour is put down to having black blood, even though he never has any evidence that he has any. He continually passes for white. (We later meet his biological grandparents and they think that his biological father may have been part black, but they never met the man. His grandfather’s vicious opposition both to him and to the mother he never knew also help explain his behaviour.) Despite all we learn about him, Christmas remains taciturn and somewhat mysterious. We also find out that he has been having an affair with Joanna Burden (who is in her early forties, while he is in his thirties.) He kills her almost in a fit of spite. Though he manages to escape, he continually makes it easy for his pursuers to find him (they put it down to the stupidity of his black blood) and even when he escapes at the end he is easily caught and killed.

The Lena Grove-Lucas Burch story is almost an afterthought but does finish off the novel, with Byron Bunch thrown into the mix. I have omitted another story, which concerns the Reverend Hightower, who came to Jefferson because of his grandfather’s actions there in the Civil War but has since become disgraced because of his wife’s adulterous behaviour and suicide. Like Christmas he bears the stigma of his past and the past of his family and cannot escape it. Bunch is the only one to be friendly to him as he is the only one to be friendly to Lena Grove.

Despite the racism, it is a very powerful novel and clearly one of Faulkner’s best. The legacy of the past and the price we pay for our misdeeds and the misdeeds of those closest to us are very strong and are consistently drummed home by Faulkner. The other key theme – and closely related to the main one – is the concept of community or, more particularly, the issue of fitting in. Christmas, Lena Grove, Joanna Burden, Byron Bunch and Gail Hightower do not fit in and all pay heavily for it. They either die or, at the end of the novel, are struggling to find what their roles are. The other characters who do fit in are clearly minor and of little interest to Faulkner, except to move the plot along. Great literature has often been about those that live on the edges of society and this book is a major example of this.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Harrison Smith and Robert Haas